Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 10 - The Rich Vagrant

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THOUGH to more fortunately-circumstanced outsiders the daily life of the struggling poor may in some of its phases present a certain picturesqueness of aspect, it is to the poor themselves a monotonous as well as a hard life. Their energies have to be devoted exclusively to the all-important business of making ends meet, and though the individual callings by which they seek to accomplish this object may be pretty widely varied, the life of the class as a whole moves in a very limited and very matter-of-fact circle. The romance of life, the hair-breadth escapes, the moving accidents by flood and field, the adventures of travel, and the mysteries and "sensations" of "society," are not - they are quite content to conclude - for them, save perhaps as things to be read of in newspapers. When, therefore, there does chance to befall in their midst anything in the nature of a sensation, they are naturally inclined to make the most of it, to make more of a nine-days' wonder of it than would be the case with people who had had fuller opportunities of becoming sensation-proof, or whose manners had more of the repose that marks the caste of Vere de Vere.
    The poor quarter of my own district has recently been [-140-] the scene of an incident which, mild or commonplace as it may appear to some, is nevertheless regarded by the inhabitants as the most interesting and sensational that has occurred within their actual ken since the local bread-riots of some twelve years previous. It afforded a fruitful theme of conversation, and a practically inexhaustible field for the exercise of their powers of guessing, wondering, and moralising; and I venture to think that in this connection, in the relation in which it was viewed and commented upon by those among whom it happened, the incident is well worth relating, its moral well worth pointing.
    In the poorer quarter of the district common lodging- houses abound to a rather marked extent. There is one entire street of them, several groups of two or three together, and single ones scattered about pretty freely. Many of them are the property, and most of them are under the management, of one speculator in this line of business. This man may fairly claim to rank among "men who have risen," or be classed with the "self-made." He came to London without a friend, and with even less than the proverbial half-crown in his pocket, came as an ordinary tramping frequenter of one of the lodging-houses which now form part of his own possessions. His first rise was to the position of "deputy," and as he took "kindly" to the business, worked hard, dealt shrewdly, and developed very considerable powers of organisation, he rapidly advanced to the position of a "warm" man, a man of mark and an office-holder in his parish - a man, in short, with a character to lose and a reputation to maintain.
    [-141-] It is probably owing to this circumstance, to the bulk of the houses being in the hands of one "big" man of this stamp, rather than in the hands of a number of small men, that the lodging-houses of this quarter are somewhat better than the average of their kind. They are conducted in as orderly a fashion as such places well can be, and there is a tacit understanding among "those whom it may concern" to the effect that any who approach nearer to the criminal classes than the no-visible-means-of-support section of society will not be regarded as welcome guests within their walls. Apart from this, there is a desire to accommodate all classes, so far as may be. There is a house for foreign organ-grinders, with a loft specially set aside for the warehousing of their instruments, and a deputy who understands their customs, if not their language. For other street musicians, including the humble ballad-singer, there is another house. Another house accommodates tramping and other professional beggars. Still another is, by the law of wont and custom, specially appropriated to lodgers of Irish nationality. One is told off for labouring families, who are weekly tenants, and make these lodging-houses their homes, and another for wayfarers of the same class. There is a house for men only, a house for women only, and a house for married couples, and there are general houses for those who rather prefer to be mixed than classed.
    It is with a house of this hatter class that the incident here in question is associated. The house is situated in the heart of the Irish quarter, and is chiefly frequented by Irishmen, and stray foreigners who are so far in [-142-] communion with the Irish that they are of the same religion professed by the majority of that body. One such foreigner - whose name and nationality need not be recorded here - there was, who, after using the house for some rears as an occasional, had become one of its regulars, paying weekly, and having, it can scarcely be said a bedroom, but a shut-off bed to himself. Whatever might have been his age by actual tale of years, he was practically, by infirmity of constitution, or as the result of hard living, an old man; a man with a stooping figure, a shambling gait, grey and grizzled hair, a haggard, care-worn face, and a generally half-starved appearance.
    His clothing was a wonderful combination of "loop'd and window'd" and clouted raggedness; so much so that even the frequenters of the house - most of them connoisseurs in the matter of raggedness - marvelled how he managed to get in and out of them and still keep them together. His garments were even more dirty than ragged, and this same quality of dirtiness extended to his care - or want of care - of his person. Now this latter is by no means a necessity of lodging-house life. In the present day common lodging-houses are not the fearsome and noisome dens that they were formerly wont to be. They are usually the "sweetest" and cleanliest houses of the neighbourhoods in which they are situated. With them it is a case of must. They are under Government regulation and inspection, and subject to surprise visits from officers at all hours of the day or night. Any infraction of the rules made and provided for their management is liable to be followed by the suspension or withdrawal of their licenses, or, if need be, the prosecution [-143-] of their deputies or owners, or both. The ceilings and walls must be kept well whitewashed and limewashed the appliances for drainage and ventilation maintained in good order. The floors, tables, benches, and bedding must be regularly washed. The number of beds to a house, and even their distribution, is fixed by the authorities, and the size of the "general" room must be in proportion to the number of beds. The bedding is hard and coarse, and perhaps somewhat scanty, but, as just remarked, it is kept clean. That the sheets and other such movables and pawnables have imprinted upon them the legend, "Stolen from Dash's" (the name of the proprietor) is regarded as a mere detail, a necessity of the situation. It is an effectual safeguard against the dishonest, and need not be taken as intending personal insult by the consciously honest. Finally the common lodging-house must have a sufficient supply of water, and afford to its tenantry the means of performing their ablutions. It is but fair to the bulk of such tenantry to say that they gladly avail themselves of this latter convenience, and regard "a good sluice" in the morning as a luxury. To this rule, however, there are exceptions, and the compulsion to cleanliness extending only to the buildings and appliances, those of the inmates who are so minded can indulge in what one would almost suppose they must consider the luxury of dirt.
    Among those of this inclining was the foreigner here in question. He could speak English, but seldom did speak either in that or any other language, being of a markedly reserved and reticent disposition. While, as they gathered around the blazing fire of the general room, others would [-144-] make merry, or make moan, as their mood might be; would recount to each other the stories of their lives from day to day, or exchange inquiries about mutual acquaintances - while others fraternised in this way, the foreigner would sit silent and apart. He evidently sought the fireside not for company's sake, but merely for warmth. and the chances - so to speak - of picking up the crumbs that fell from the poor man's table.
    Improvidence is a general failing of the vagrant class. They habitually and by choice live from hand to mouth. Given that they have time wherewithal to do it, they will in their own rough way fare sumptuously for the passing day, and take their chance of starving on the morrow. Of this the odours pervading the general room of a common lodging-house at breakfast and supper times afford convincing testimony. In the morning the air is heavy with the flavour of ham and eggs, haddocks, herrings, and other the like breakfast "relishes;" in the evening with that of beefsteak and onions. It is of course only those who are "in luck" for the day who can afford to "run" to these good things, but the lucky ones are usually very generous in the matter of sharing with their less fortunate fellows.
    The poor old foreigner was rarely able to supply himself with aught beyond dry bread, but many and many a bit of meat, or taste of a "relish," or cup of tea or coffee, was bestowed upon him hr other frequenters of the house. What be himself did for a living none knew positively, not even the deputy. It was generally taken for granted, however, that he was a beggar, though none professed to know where his beat was. If he did speak [-145-]  at all it was generally to complain of his utter poverty, the hardness of the times, the bitter struggle it was for him to exist, even in the wretched manner in which he did exist, his difficulty in scraping together his weekly rent. In connection with this latter point it was noticed that he always paid in coppers. No one connected with the lodging-house had ever seen him with a silver coin, much less a gold one.
    Such hard living as he was subjected to naturally told upon his health. The "deputy" frequently suggested that he should call in the aid of the parish doctor, but the lodger always objected, and the illness going thus unchecked, he presently began to show unmistakable evidence of a break-up of constitution. For a man to linger on in this style was no uncommon thing in lodging-house experience; but in this case the climax came with a terrible suddenness. One morning the poor old foreigner fell down in a fit, from which all the efforts of the other inmates of the lodging-house failed to recover him. The services of the parish doctor were therefore called into requisition, and he ordered the immediate removal of the patient to the workhouse infirmary.
    Medical aid, however, had come too late to save life; the man never rallied, never recovered consciousness, and died in a few hours. And then came the sensational revelation concerning him, the revelation that, while creating wonder and affording infinite scope for table talk, also turned the feeling of pity with which he had been regarded in his lifetime into a feeling of scorn and loathing for his memory.
    The man had been a miser! When those whose office [-146-] it is to prepare the pauper dead for their last long earthly sleep came to remove the clothing from the body, they discovered, sewn in among the rags and patches of which the clothing consisted, money to the amount of about nine hundred pounds; three hundred in gold, and the remainder in bonds and notes. In addition to this there were found documents relating to a variety of money transactions, and some of these papers, it was thought, might still be of some value.
    The guardians of course took possession of the money pro tem., and for a time it seemed as though it were going to lapse to the Crown. But presently an heir-at-law came forward amid put in her claim. She was a respectable middle-aged woman, and stated that she was a sister of the dead man, of whose death and the circumstances attending it she had been made aware through the newspaper accounts of the affair. Like her brother, she appeared to be of a reserved character. Of his earlier life she would not speak, and she professed - in all probability truly - to have lost sight of him during the later years of his life. She knew her rights, knew that she had only to prove that she was his sister and nearest relative; and this, through the agency of the consul of her nation, who took up the business on her behalf, she did in full form to the satisfaction of those concerned, and the money was duly paid over to her.
    So far the story ended, but its memory as a "sensation" remains green in the district, and more particularly in lodging-house circles. For many a night it remained the theme of discourse in the fireside circles of the common kitchens of the lodging-houses. With the keynote [-147-] to the dead man's character made plain, all manner of little incidents that had before appeared mysterious now stood forth as ignobly characteristic; and as such incidents were recalled and submitted to this new light, there were not lacking some very emphatic and significant remarks as to what would have been the line of action of the speakers towards the deceased, had they only known his "little game" when he was alive and in their midst.
    As usually happens, too, the sins of the guilty were visited upon the innocent. In all the lodging-houses of the district, any elderly and ragged wayfarer who showed a desire to "keep himself to himself" was regarded with distrust and suspicion. If he was seen to lack food, others more fortunate refrained from their usual practice of giving him of theirs, lest he should be "coming old ----- over them;" and in some instances he was made the victim of rough horse-play, got up as a cover for "rubbing him down," with a view to ascertaining whether there were concealed money-bags about him.
    All this, however, was but the mere superficial outcome of the influence of this real life-story upon those in whose circle it had been enacted. In their rough untutored way they saw and felt the immoral that the story pointed, the lesson that underlay it. They saw by this man's miserable life how true indeed it is, and in what sense and manner it is true, that money is the root of all evil; saw that the worship of money was the most ignoble, the most degrading, the most soul-stifling of all idolatries.
    His love of money had made his life all evil. So far as was known, he had broken no law of the statute-book, but his life had been one great sin against the higher [-148-] laws both of God and man. It had been a sin against the great law of that charity, lacking which, though we possess all else, we are as nothing; and it had been equally a sin against the great command, "Do unto others as you would they should do unto you." He had looked unmoved upon sorrow and suffering that he could well have relieved, such sorrow and suffering as he had many a time seen relieved by men who were really little better than the penniless beggar he only appeared to be; and he had looked on and made no sign when men who had more than once shared their own scanty meals with him had, after a day's hard tramping, sat foodless and without the means of procuring food, though a few pence would have relieved their necessities.
    All this, as I had opportunity of gathering, by simply listening to their more serious comments and reflections upon the subject, those among whom the miser dragged out the later years of his miserable existence saw clearly enough, though they might not be able to expound it to others, or even formulate it to themselves. Unconsciously, too, they discriminated the character of the dead man's vice with a nicety that makes the lesson of the story more telling than it would otherwise be. They saw that selfishness and love of money were two distinct vices, and the latter the worse of the two. Both forms of vice may take manifold forms, but in the particular connection here in view selfishness leads the individual to seek the luxuries of life - love of money to begrudge the necessaries of life.
    The one vice is exemplified to people of the lodging-house class by the man who will live "high" to-day, let [-149-] what may come to-morrow, and who, by making a literal interpretation of the saying that "self-help is the first law of nature" his guiding principle, manages to live more or less high most days. The other and darker vice is exemplified to them by the money-grabbers among them, of whom this miser was but an extreme example. The selfishness of the selfish man generally has something of self-respect included in it; he practises, in some degree, at any rate, the cleanliness which is said to be next to godliness. But the sheer lover of money usually sins in a special degree against the temple of the soul - his own body. He neglects it, starves it, allows it to become fouler than those of the beasts that perish. This love of money for its own dead sake, for the sake of its mere possession and accumulation, and not for the power for good to self and others which, rightly used, it may give - this slavish love, this idolatrous worship of money is so unwise in itself, that it is often spoken of as a kind of unworldliness, but it is an unworldliness that is worse than the worst worldliness.
    The incident here related created, as already said, a great "sensation" in the neighbourhood in which it occurred, and from hearing much of it, and frequently availing myself of opportunities for driving home the lessons for which it affords a text, it may be that I have been brought to somewhat overrate its moral significance. But with all due allowance made on that head, I still venture to think that the story is one that may well give pause to the thoughtful in all classes of life.
    It is an extreme case certainly, but in less extreme, though scarcely less ignoble or hurtful form, the love of [-150-]money is at this day a crying evil under the sun. The worship of Mammon, though not a creed, is with many a practice. Metaphorically speaking, the golden calf is set up much as the brazen serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, and has much the same power attributed to it. Get money is the one only and all-inclusive command that thousands strive to fulfil and reliance upon money is placed before reliance upon Him without whose knowledge even a sparrow cannot fall. That such a state of things does largely exist none who observe or reflect can for a moment doubt. And it is a state of things, I venture to think, "horrid examples" of which may occasionally be held up with advantage; a state of things to be earnestly proved against and wrought against.